In continuing with Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series, the ever-intriguing Charlotte Hornets find themselves next on the docket. While the team itself certainly hasn’t achieved G.O.A.T. status, their majority owner – one Michael Jordan – will likely always be a part of the conversation on a player level.
How does a guy who had so much success when in the league struggle to field any semblance of a championship team as an owner?
Has Charlotte been terrible these last few seasons? That would be a resounding no. They’ve reached the postseason twice in the last six years and have only fallen below 35 wins once in that span. The issue would be the fact that they had a first-round exit both times, they are on the outside looking in this season with a slim chance at the eight seed and their team is so capped out there really isn’t much hope for the immediate future. Oh, and let’s not forget to mention that the only hope on their roster – Kemba Walker – becomes an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
Upon further review, fixing the Charlotte Hornets may even be too big of a task for His Airness to do successfully.
What Is Working
If the only criteria that the Charlotte Hornets were graded off of were Jeremy Lamb game-winners against the Toronto Raptors then they would be the best team in the NBA. Unfortunately for them, in the grand scheme of things, those game winners don’t really mean much.
Not to be misunderstood, Lamb’s heroics very well could’ve been the reason Charlotte somehow snuck into the playoffs, but they certainly wouldn’t have done anything for the team headed for an exit the first round inside of five games tops.
Speaking of Lamb, however, it is easy to see he’s having a career year. This is a very smart move for someone who is about to be an unrestricted free agent. Yes, the Hornets have two players having career years that equally have very high chances of leaving to another franchise. He’s averaging career highs in points, rebounds and steals. He’s also shooting over four three-pointers per game at just over 34 percent.
His game isn’t perfect, but he’s proven this year he deserves a bigger contract and that he can certainly help whatever team he ends up on offensively. Should Charlotte attempt to keep him, he will continue to grow into a more prominent role within their system.
Kemba Walker has evolved into an offensive machine. His shooting continues to hover around average, but the mere volume of shots he takes per game definitely pushes it as a plus. He is so incredibly quick off the dribble and creates his own shot as good as anyone in the league.
He’s no slouch at playing the pure point guard position, either. He’s averaging 5.9 assists per night – half a notch above his career average. He very well may be playing his way into a max money contract. And herein lies the problem.
What Needs To Change
Kemba Walker doesn’t need to change. Or does he? If he makes 3rd Team All-NBA this season – which is likely a possibility – he becomes eligible for a supermax contract. But would Charlotte be willing to pay him that kind of money to stay? If so, would Kemba be willing to take it?
Charlotte has a serious cap space problem. They are paying Nicolas Batum over $25 million next season and he has a $27 million player option in 2020-21. Yes, he will most certainly opt in. They struggled to find anyone to take his deal during the trade deadline, so it appears he will likely be there for good.
Cody Zeller is another issue. He’s making over $14 million next season and $15 million in 2020-21. He’s by no means a negative player, but $15 million a season is a bit much for a starter that has never cracked 30 minutes per game (or stayed healthy for an entire season for that matter).
Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist all have player options next season totaling $45 million. If they can somehow work in new contracts for Walker and Lamb, it would put them in the $130-140 million range. The cap space for the 2019-20 season is expected to be at $109 million.
Why would Charlotte be willing to go that much over the luxury tax with the same roster that struggled mightily in the East? And let’s not pretend like their current roster has room to grow and flourish. Outside of Malik Monk and Miles Bridges – who by the way haven’t shown any legitimate star potential – you kind of know what you’re going to get from each and every player.
It is hard to say what exactly needs to change, but the current product just isn’t working. Building around younger talent and doing everything they can to dump negative contracts is a start.
Focus Area: Free Agency
While you would hate to see Kemba leave the franchise, it may be what’s best. Resigning him to a max or near-max deal gives them zero wiggle room next season and really limits their future outlook as far as building out the rest of their roster goes. Not to be confused, Kemba is a great talent. But with where Charlotte is right now as a franchise, it’s quite clear they need to more or less move on and begin a rebuild.
The same thing goes for Jeremy Lamb. There isn’t any point in signing him to large contract if he’s not necessarily a part of your future plans. Not to say he couldn’t help them win games – both he and Kemba could certainly do that – but it’s quite clear they aren’t bringing any trophies home.
Instead of going after it this upcoming offseason, the Hornets need to do what they can to cut their losses. It is likely that most of the guys on their roster with player options will opt-in. If they are able to trade any expiring contracts to teams for picks during the first half of next season that would be a huge win. While most of those guys are overpaid, they could still help a team trying to contend.
Focus Area: The Draft
Charlotte has done a fairly decent job of drafting gifted athletes the last few seasons. Miles Bridges and Malik Monk both appear to have enough raw athleticism to end up being solid role players at worst. They are both still just 21 years old, so there is plenty of room for them to grow.
The problem with this upcoming offseason is that they won’t have a super high draft pick. They may still find themselves in the lottery, but it will certainly be on the tail end. Obviously, talent can be found just about anywhere along the draft, but the odds of landing a solid player simply go down as picks are taken off the board.
Not many people are advocates for tanking – we aren’t any different here – but in order to aid their rebuild that might be one of their better options this season. Tanking isn’t something that has to be done deliberately. Simply field a team with less talented players and positive tanking results will follow. As an added bonus, the salary cap is usually much smaller. The front office should definitely be happy with that.
The Hornets have a lot they need to improve on if they want to be in contention this decade. They find themselves in an incredibly tough spot because their current roster isn’t necessarily young, they are absolutely overpaid and it is pretty clear they won’t be getting any better. The debut season for their new head coach wasn’t as successful as they would have hoped, and missing the playoffs in the Eastern Conference – a conference that is pretty weak outside of the top five teams – is a bad start given that the team was definitely not in rebuild mode this season.
If MJ wants the Charlotte Hornets to emulate his successful past, it will 1,000 percent take a lot of effort, quite a bit of luck and some serious help on the trade market. But if there is anything that we’ve learned from NBA history, it’s that quick rebuilds can oftentimes be the best ones.
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